Six Nations 2014: Key Battles That Will Decide France vs. Ireland

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistMarch 13, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Jonathan Sexton of Ireland congratulates team-mate Rob Kearney after he scores a try during the RBS Six Nations match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium on February 22, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Heading into the final weekend of this year's Six Nations championship, we have three teams left in the running to claim Europe's most coveted title.

While England attempt to close the gap in points difference against Italy, France and Ireland collide at the Stade de France in the hopes of producing a tournament victor.

Joe Schmidt's men are the best-placed team to bring home the trophy, currently leading the pack as a result of their attacking mentality over the last seven weeks. Read on for a breakdown of those one-on-one encounters that will decide the tie in Paris.


Remi Tales vs. Jonny Sexton

NEW PLYMOUTH, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 22: Remi Tales of France makes a break during the Third Test Match between the New Zealand All Blacks and France at Yarrow Stadium on June 22, 2013 in New Plymouth, New Zealand.  (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)
Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

Philippe Saint-Andre has placed his faith in Stade Francais youngster Jules Plisson for the competition thus far, but it's Remi Tales who takes his place in Les Bleus' No. 10 jersey this week.

And there are few greater tests of the fly-half's international mettle than Jonny Sexton, who's been at his controlled and tactically pragmatic best over the last month-and-a-half.

DUBLIN, IRELAND - MARCH 08:  Jonathan Sexton of Ireland in action during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy at Aviva Stadium on March 8, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)
Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

England's full-throttle approach was able to prevent the Leinster man from having his optimum impact at Twickenham three weeks ago, but France aren't the same tactically sound outfit as Stuart Lancaster's counterparts, irrespective of their own defeat in Week 1.

Tales comes into the side looking to forge a sound understanding with scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, and the Castres playmaker will need to match Sexton's territory kicking if his side are to be given a strong enough platform to attack from in their curtain call.


Dimitri Szarzewski vs. Rory Best

Peter Morrison/Associated Press

Dimitri Szarzewski is another figure who didn't start this championship as one of Saint-Andre's leading men, but the hooker has maintained his place in the starting XV since Week 2, save for an ankle injury ruling him out of the fourth-round win over Scotland.

The Racing Metro star returns to combat Rory Best's influence over Irish fortunes this Saturday, however, where he'll hope to shore things up not just at the set piece but also contribute yardage in the loose, too.

Rugby World's Charlie Morgan points out just how important the Irish mauling tactic is with Best at its root:

Best has established himself as one of the most consistent players in his position internationally, but in a French team that has a number of uncertain talents among its ranks, Szarzewski is one of the more reliable.

The giants of the French pack will look to disrupt Best's form at the line-out just as the likes of Paul O'Connell and Devin Toner will for their French counterparts, but the form of the hooking duo lies at the core of this particular head-to-head.


Gael Fickou vs. Gordon D'Arcy

Gael Fickou finally gets his first start of this year's Six Nations on Saturday, a move that has seen Maxime Mermoz drop back to the bench, with Mathieu Bastareaud maintaining his spot at outside centre.

The Score's Murray Kinsella noted it as strange that Mermoz was given a chance ahead of Fickou in the last round:

And it's a trial by fire for the youngster, too, as he gets the honour of ensuring Brian O'Driscoll's impact is minimal in what will be his last-ever Six Nations outing.

Fickou's best traits rise to the fore when he gets ball in hand, as has been shown in almost all of his cameos thus far in the competition but namely his last-minute winning score against England.

Gordon D'Arcy's defensive work will look to limit that influence, but it will be an area of intrigue to see if Fickou has the defensive capabilities to restrain Ireland's midfield weapons from creating chances for their swifter assets out wide.